The Gonzaga Bulldogs have a lot to look forward to this season. After all, they’re currently ranked No. 10 in the CBS Sports Preseason Top 25 (and one) and also have our preseason national player of the year in forward Kyle Wiltjer.
But the recruiting process never stops, and the Bulldogs know that as well as anybody. In fact the future could be brighter for the program than it’s ever been. Coming off of their first Elite Eight appearance under Few in 2015, the Bulldogs have cleaned up on the recruiting trail like never before.
On Monday, the Bulldogs received a commitment from Zachary Norvell, a 6-5 shooting guard from Chicago. Norvell would have been a good get for just about any school in the country, as he’s a hard-working wing who can run the floor and knock down shots from distance. He’s pretty much universally considered a strong four-star prospect by recruiting services, and he’ll undoubtedly be one of the best players to enter the West Coast Conference next season.
He’s also, rather remarkably given his extremely high skill level, arguably Gonzaga’s fifth-most important addition to the 2016-17 team since April.
And that’s quite a statement from a program that marches to the beat of its own drum in regard to who it brings in, largely ignoring recruiting rankings and identifying what best fits their system and culture.
“We know what works for us,” coach Mark Few told CBS Sports when I asked about what the team looks for in its recruits. “We know what we can put together that’s going to be successful for our program and hopefully help us maintain the level of success that we’ve had.”
What does the prototypical player look like that fits at Gonzaga?
“We try to get the type of people who value what we’re all about,” Few said while being unable to discuss specific unsigned players due to NCAA regulations. “We’re about winning, and we’re not caught up in the frills of crazy marble staircases. We have adequate, really nice facilities but we’re not going to go over the top and spoil our guys. We’re about guys who really value coming in, being a part of a team, and wanting to win at the highest level of college basketball, then moving on to the next level. The guys who really, really value that — winning, going to the NCAA Tournament, hard work, and development — succeed here.”
This influx of talent started last spring when 6-11 center Zach Collins committed. Collins is the No. 65 overall prospect in the 247Sports Composite for the Class of 2016. He’s a bit more highly-regarded than these types, but imagine him in something of a Casey Calvary/Josh Heytvelt type place in the Bulldogs’ system as a big man who can finish around the basket but also step out and knock down jumpers. Collins alone would have given the Zags a strong start to their recruiting class, but Few decided to really be aggressive this offseason.
As he often has in the past three seasons, Few hit the transfer market and used the extra scholarships that he had for the 2015-16 season.
“To me, what ends up happening with transfers,” Few says. “Ninety percent of them, all the fluff, the hype, the crap that’s out there with recruiting, it gets totally taken out of the mix. And then it comes down to purely: ‘This is what I want from my career. I made a decision based on this and I was wrong, and now’ — at least with guys we get — ‘I want player development, to be around guys I really like and want to win, and to play in the tournament’ And that’s basically what it comes down to. It doesn’t come down to ‘we got the most awesome waterfalls in the training room or TVs in all of our lockers or uniforms.’ But when they’re 18, they sometimes make decisions off of that. It kinda just cuts through all of that and gets down to what it should be all about.”
He hit the jackpot in Nigel Williams-Goss and Jonathan Williams III.
Williams-Goss was a former McDonald’s All-American at Washington that had actually already lived up to the hype, making the All-Pac-12 freshman team in his first season followed by a sophomore season in which he finished seventh in the league in scoring and second in assists. However, he became disillussioned with the Huskies’ middling results, and decided to move on. In Gonzaga, he saw a school right down the road that fit his criteria.
Williams III was also a former top-50 recruit at a program seemingly on the downswing in Missouri. But he’s another guy that looks ready to contribute to a winner in 2017. He averaged nearly 12 points and seven rebounds in 29 minutes per game last year, and is already drawing rave reviews from the coaching staff for his work this offseason and preseason.
“They possessed all of the qualities we look for in players,” Few said. “These guys have a great desire to win, a great desire to play in the NCAA Tournament, be a part of a winning team with a culture. And throughout the process they expressed that to us. They have an unbelievable, insatiable desire to develop as players. We’ve had some really, really good ones up here, but Nigel and Jonathan are top of the list for that.”
Then in August, the Zags added the fourth piece of their puzzle for 2016 in Killian Tillie, a 6-10 stretch-four from France that won MVP at the 2014 U16 European Championships. He’s a bit of a project due to his frame, but Tillie seems to understand that and said in an interview with DraftExpress’ Jonathan Givony this summer that he plans to stay in college “three-to-four years.” At his size, Tillie is a tremendous athlete with a strong feel for the game that can knock down shots from the outside and handle the ball well when attacking close-outs. Yet another international coup for the Zags, who have now become the standard in the NCAA in making these players succeed — just look at Elias Harris, Domantas Sabonis, and Przemek Karnowski.
That aforementioned foursome, along with Norvell, should make up the best talent influx in a single class that this program has seen. Of course, the Bulldogs will need it next year, given that they could lose four starters in Wiltjer, Karnowski, Eric McClellan and Kyle Dranginis. But it’s hard to ignore the kind of skill that will be in Spokane next year. That group, along with Josh Perkins, Silas Melson, and possibly even Sabonis if he sticks around for another season, represent a future era of Gonzaga basketball that is as bright as any that has preceded it.
Things will likely continue to be consistently excellent in Spokane as long as Few’s in town. But if he starts getting higher end players to attend Gonzaga like this consistently?
The rest of the country better take notice, because the Bulldogs will likely not have hit their peak yet.